Espionage accusations | Australian writer Yang Jun sentenced to suspended death in China

(Beijing) Australian writer of Chinese origin Yang Jun, imprisoned in China since 2019 for espionage charges that he disputes, was sentenced to suspended death in this country on Monday, Beijing and Canberra announced.

This condemnation is likely to once again strain relations between the two countries, which had calmed since last year.

Novelist and blogger, supporter of the democratization of China, Yang Jun, born in 1965, is a former Chinese diplomat who became an Australian citizen in 2002.

Also known by his pen name, Yang Hengjun, he was arrested during a visit to China in January 2019, while he was living in the United States.

A Beijing court declared Yang Jun “guilty of espionage” on Monday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a regular press briefing.

The court “sentenced him to death with a two-year reprieve and confiscated all his personal property,” he said.

Concretely, a suspended death sentence in China is generally commuted to life imprisonment after two years of imprisonment.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had expressed to Beijing his government’s “dismay, despair, frustration, and to put it very simply, indignation” over the verdict.

Earlier, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the Australian government was “appalled by this decision” and that Canberra would respond “in the strongest terms”.

“Acute distress”

In August 2023, Yang Jun said he feared for his life in detention due to a large cyst on his kidney.

The writer claimed in May 2021 that he had been tortured in an undisclosed location during his detention, fearing that forced confessions would be used against him. Beijing rejected these accusations.

Penny Wong said Monday that Canberra had summoned the Chinese ambassador to Australia.

“I would like to emphasize the acute distress that the Dr Yang and his family must be feeling today, after years of uncertainty,” the minister said.

“All Australians want the Dr Yang can reunite with his family,” she stressed.

Residing in the United States, Yang Jun was arrested during a return to China in January 2019. He is the author of a series of spy novels as well as a popular Chinese-language blog.

This conviction comes at a time when Sino-Australian relations appeared to be improving, notably with the release in October 2023 of Australian journalist Cheng Lei.

This former presenter for the English-speaking Chinese public television CGTN, also imprisoned in China, had been detained in the name of “national security”.

Relations between the two countries deteriorated in 2018, when Australia excluded the private Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G telephone network.

Tight relationships

Beijing had also criticized Canberra for police raids on the homes of Chinese journalists based in Australia, carried out as part of an investigation into a potential influence campaign.

Canberra had also angered Beijing by calling for an international investigation into the origins of the virus responsible for COVID-19, which was first detected in China.

In response, Beijing had notably imposed high customs duties on many Australian export products, including meat, wine and barley, and halted its coal imports.

Most of these measures have been lifted since Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese came to power in May 2023. The center-left leader visited Beijing in November, welcoming an “undeniable” improvement in ties between the two countries.

Australia, which formed the AUKUS military alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom, however, still seeks to counter China’s influence in the South Pacific.

Canberra must notably purchase three nuclear-powered submarines from the United States during the 2030s and in December concluded a security agreement with Papua New Guinea, which China was also courting.


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